A novel method of recruiting research participants

Is this provocative approach an effective method to narrow in on an elusive demographic that other institutions should take note of? Or is it misleading, presumptuous and offensive? Is it OK to solicit research participants using material that blatantly stereotypes them?

In college, I participated in my share of my psychological studies. I pressed the space bar every time I heard a tone for an hour. I allowed researchers to cap me with EEG electrodes and pick my brain. I willingly climbed into an fMRI scanner. But I think I was a rarity among students for actually responding to the fliers that decked the maze-like halls of the Psych building at the University of Michigan. Maybe the Psych grad students at my school were just really uncreative, but as I recall pretty much every flier soliciting participants consisted of plain white paper with boiler-plate black Times New Roman font and little tear-away tabs haphazardly cut into the bottom of the page — the tabs that, once torn, inevitably ended up as an incomprehensible wad in the bottom of the dryer. The largest fonts shouted the most general questions to passers-by who caught a glimpse in their peripheral vision and thought “Hey, that sounds like me.”

“ARE YOU STRESSED?” “DO YOU SOMETIMES FEEL SAD?” And of course, the low-hanging fruit of “DO YOU WANT TO MAKE SOME EXTRA CASH THIS SUMMER??” reeled in the strung-out and sleep-deprived, only to disappoint upon a look closer where the small print revealed they had to be left-handed non-smoking diabetics from East Asia to qualify.

But here in Williamsburg, I’ve noticed, people are starting to get creative:



These were business-card sized advertisements I found at the Internet Garage, my local computing hang out where, conveniently I used to work (free whatever, my geek boys hook it up).

Appealing, right? I mean, if you want to get people’s attention in this neighborhood, sex and cocaine are probably the ways to do it. But to the dismay of all the hopefuls who thought they had stumbled on a goldmine of hipster goodies, the back of the cards revealed the ulterior motive was a scientific study:


Maybe there aren’t judgments, but there certainly are assumptions. I couldn’t find any demographic information about sexual preference and elicit drug use broken down by neighborhood online, so I can’t speak to the validity of those assumptions. But I mean, there are a lot of people with tight pants and perpetual bags under their eyes in Williamsburg, so it MUST be true, right? Certainly if an institution is willing to spend precious research dollars on this kind of advertising, they would base their decision on more than popular stereotypes about the inhabitants of Williamsburg, right?

I found another variation today. Front:

Do you party



Upon further investigation, it appears these cards are part of an effort by Hunter College to recruit gay males for three ongoing research projects on homosexuality, drug use and adherence to an HIV med regimen:

1. The Men’s Health Project is a new research study looking at gay and bisexual men’s sex lives and use of recreational drugs. Find out if you are eligible for our study that can give you the opportunity to participate in paid optional sessions to talk about your sexual behavior and drug use in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Eligible participants can be paid up to $340 for their time.

2. ACE – Adherence, Counseling, and Education is a new study for gay and bisexual men who are taking HIV anti-retroviral medications. This project seeks to increase adherence while decreasing substance use and other associated risk behaviors. Eligible participants can be paid up to $330 for their time.

3. Project SMART is a new research program studying ways to improve treatments for gay and bisexual men who are experiencing problems with alcohol, or who simply may be thinking about cutting down on their drinking, but who don’t want to quit drinking altogether. You may be eligible for a paid study of innovative approaches to help manage your drinking.

Is this provocative approach an effective method to narrow in on an elusive demographic that other institutions should take note of? Or is it misleading, presumptuous and offensive? Is it OK to solicit research participants using material that blatantly stereotypes them?

I don’t know, dear readers. But I do know that there are loads of heterosexual, HIV-negative hipsters who feel duped by these advertisements and would like their free samples of blow.

11 replies on “A novel method of recruiting research participants”

You’d be surprised what researchers will go to in an effort to reach a target demographic. One prof made it on the Daily Show for his marijuana study commercials. And the more creative, the better. Otherwise they DO end up at the bottom of someone’s lint trap.

Interesting. That would make sense, but then shouldn’t the website the cards reference say something about that? There is no mention of vaccination on the site and it seems rather deceptive to recruit people for a study that claims its goal is to improve alcohol and drug problems and help people stick to their HIV med regimens better if it really aims to find vaccination subjects.

oh, you are right. this is for recruitment for positive guys who have addiction issues, sorry. i have seen other (but similar) fliers for the vaccination study. they hit their target audience though, right on the head. possibly a little to right on the head (le wink). i now want to make $340 bucks, plant seeds AND do blow. but then, i’ve always been a whore for marketing.

First, I can assure you that the studies are not for HIV Vaccines.

Secondly, the same cards are used in neighborhoods from the Bronx to Brooklyn… not just the Billy Burg. While they are provocative it is our hope that no one is offended. The images and text is simply a means to get folks who may be appropriate for the studies to pick up the cards. I’m sorry for all the “heterosexual, HIV-negative hipsters” who may have spent a few seconds picking up one of our cards… but it is all for the greater good.

The studies mentioned are wide ranging. ACE is specifically for HIV positive folks while The Men’s Health Project is more inclusive and is for men who have sex with men who use any recreational substances. Project SMART actually takes place up at Columbia.

Now if I could only get on the Daily Show.

Interesting, thanks for the clarification. This is why I love the Interwebs. Throw a question out into the aether, get an answer back. I did not necessarily assume that the cards were ONLY distributed in Williamsburg, but I couldn’t find info on your website to describe the reach of the study to clarify. Glad you commented. Good luck with your study, your advertising methods certainly got my attention!

Hmmm…who’s making the assumptions now!
Guess assuming the researchers intentions were to target only williamsburgians is where this post is wrong.

YOU ARE GIVING MISINFORMATION! You need to be thorough in your facts before you inform the public. I have seen these cards every where, in Chelsea, Astoria, Lower East Side, Harlem, China Town, etc. So I guess that you are incorrect about Williamsburg being singled out. In research there always exists a targeted population, so basic common sense should tell us that it is impossible for a single research project to include everybody (both sexes, all age groups, and all ethnicities). I think it is sad that there is always someone complaining about feeling left out and some how having their rights violated when a decent and reputable organization like CHEST is willing to do research on a community that will clearly benefit from their research, not to mention a community that is often ignored in sociological and psychological research.

Dude, STFU with your caps and read the previous comments. This is not about if the research is good or bad, at least for me, it was about inquisition. Rights violated? I did not know if was a right to do blow. Obviously YOU know what’s going on in the study, maybe it’s time to lay off the hard drugs and call them BAck for your 6-month program.

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